The Songhai empire fought paganism under Muhammad Towri

Africa Contributor
Songhai empire

Like the great empire of Ghana and Mali, Islam also set its foot in the great Empire of Songhai. It started to spread sometime in the 11th century, it was the ruling Za or Dia dynasty that first accepted it. At that time, the empire of Songhai was a prosperous region as it had a booming trade with the Gao region. Though by the 13th century Mali empire has conquered it once, the Songhai empire freed itself by the end of the 14th century. At that time the dynasty was renamed, Sunni.

The expansion of the Songhai empire

The empire of Songhai expanded in the 15th century under the leadership of Sunni ruler Ali. He ruled between 1464 and 1492. During his reign, several important towns of West Sudan came under the Songhai empire. The scholar cities like Timbuktu and Jenne came under his reign between 1471 and 1476.

But after some time, Sunni ‘Ali became a basic Muslim. He used to forget his daily prayers and started to use Islam to his ends. He punished Islamic scholars. And after a few years, he started to practice local pagan cults and magic. According to the European scholars, Sunni ‘Ali tried to balance Islam and Paganism. But the Muslim scholars say it was nothing but hypocrisy.

The end of the Sunni ‘Ali era 

After some time, the syncretism of Sunni ‘Ali was objected to and challenged by Islamic elites and scholars of Timbuktu. Ali tried to take measures against the upsurge but failed. After his death, the outlook of the empire changed drastically. The Islam and Islamic scholars triumphed.

Muhammad Towri, a scholar and military marshal asked Ali’s successor Sunni ‘Barou if he wanted to confess openly his faith in Islam. When Barou refused, Towri dethroned him and started his own dynasty named Askiya.

The scholars say, Sunni ‘Ali was like Sundiata and Askya Muhammad Towri was the ‘Mansa Musa’ of the Songhai dynasty.

The reign of Muhammad Towri

After coming to power, Muhammad Towri established Islamic law and order in the empire. He even arranged a large number of Islamic scholars to be trained as judges. He used to respect the Islamic scholars a lot. Also, he gave them lands and places to stay. The famous scholar Muhammad Al-Maghilli was his good friend. He even contributed to the development of Timbuktu.

Just like Mansa Musa, Towri also went on Hajj and intermingled with the rulers and scholars of Arab countries. In Makkah he got great respect; he was turbaned by the Arab ruler. Also, the King gave him the title of the Caliph of Western Sudan.  On his return from Makkah in the year 1497, he proudly used the title of Al-Hajj.

Towri had a keen interest in the Islamic legal system. He used to discuss Islamic theology with scholars. His questions were very basic like ‘who is a true Muslim? How can I be a true Muslim?”  His scholar friend Al-Maghilli used to note down the question and answers.

Under the reign of the Askiya dynasty, Songhai was peaceful and prosperous. But after an attack of Sultan Aḥmad al-Manṣūr of Morocco on the salt deposits of Taghaza, the situation worsened.  Slowly the empire was conquered by the Moroccan army.

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